Despite dire warnings about the exponential growth of COVID-19 cases we can expect in lieu of stringent social distancing efforts, reports continue to come out of people carrying on with life as usual — lining up outside of restaurants or throwing parties.

Is it because these people are selfish? I don’t think so. As a social psychologist who studies people’s perceptions of their impact on others, I would argue that it is because people — all of us included —are egocentric.

The difference between being selfish and being egocentric

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Selfishness is being concerned with one’s own outcomes and disregarding others’. A selfish person might think, “I only care about my own health, and I’m in a low-risk group. I’m not going to abide by social distancing to protect the health of others because I don’t care about them.”

This is not how most people think. Most people do care about other people — more than we tend to give them credit for.

So, the vast majority of the people who are defying calls for social distancing are not doing so because they don’t care about other people. Rather, they are doing so because they don’t realize the influence their actions will have on others. They are trapped in their own heads, looking out at what is going on in the world around them, and failing to recognize their own role in it.   

Our default is to focus on how other people impact us — all of those other bad drivers on the road, the annoying people talking loudly at the table next to you, whether you’re worried about the germs on someone else’s hands. It’s harder for us to recognize when we ourselves have cut someone off with our own driving, or when our conversation is annoying someone else, or the germs we could be spreading with our own hands.


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Consequently, research finds that we tend to underestimate the impact of our own words and actions on others. For example, we fail to appreciate how hard it is for someone to refuse our requests and underestimate the number of people who see our social media posts.

Importantly for the COVID-19 crisis, this means we may also underestimate the broader impact of the people we socialize with and the things we touch — the people and things we spread our own germs to, which are then carried elsewhere.

It is hard to imagine how bad things may get for others

Another consequence of egocentrism is that it makes it difficult for us to fully appreciate other people’s experiences.

Research on hot-cold empathy gaps shows that people find it difficult to mentally simulate visceral experiences that they are not currently in the midst of. For example, it is hard to imagine how enticing that leftover pizza is likely to be for breakfast when you have just finished dinner and are not feeling at all hungry in the moment. Further, this turns out to be particularly difficult when we are trying to simulate a visceral experience someone else is having or is likely to have

This is a problem for COVID-19 because so many people have mild symptoms, no symptoms or expect to have mild or no symptoms — making it difficult for them to imagine the very visceral experience someone else might experience when struggling to breathe or uncontrollably vomiting alone in a hospital room away from their family.

Together, our tendency to underestimate the extent of the impact of our behaviors on others and the difficulty we have simulating visceral experiences we are not currently experiencing may convince people that their decisions — to go out to a restaurant, or continue to hold that party —won’t impact other people in any real way.

So, what can be done?

The difference between solving a problem of selfishness and solving one of egocentrism is a difference of convincing people to care about others versus assuming they already do care, but are failing to comprehend the actual, tangible impact of their behavior.

Research on reducing egocentrism has generally found that trying to get people to take others’ perspectives does not do much to make people more accurate about predicting others' feelings. However, getting perspective by conversing directly with people and learning about their experiences can be effective. This is why the messages sent from Italians to their former selves, tweets from the frontlines of health care workers’ experiences and the Facebook posts of people who have been directly impacted by COVID-19 are so powerful.

I’ve also found articles detailing how many lives can be saved in the future by avoiding just a single case now — the enormous impact of one person deciding not to go to one event — to be particularly compelling at convincing people of the influence each and every one of us has in the fight against this virus right now.

The people who are failing to heed precautions aren’t doing so because they don’t care; I believe they are doing so because they are underestimating the impact of their individual decisions and behaviors. We need to find a way to make the impact of their actions more tangible.

Vanessa K. Bohns is an associate professor of organizational behavior and psychology at Cornell University.


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Published on Mar 20, 2020